Serious 'animal peopleâ?� ' zookeepers, researchers, conservationists and the like ' tend to have mixed feelings about filmic representations of critters. While the rise of documentaries like those featured on Animal Planet have successfully engaged couch potatoes, they've done it at the expense of what those animal people call 'reality.â?� Though the productions usually emphasize a research-based setting ' lots of people in khaki making notes or, my favorite, interns-on-a-boat ' they also do their best to make it seem like the research subjects are simply a bunch of furry/scaly/feathery suburbanites whose behavior is peculiar enough to warrant observation. It's called 'anthropomorphism,â?� the attribution of human characteristics to non'human beings. The pinnacle of this trend is Meerkat Manor, which debuted in the U.K. in late 2005 and was so successful it was exported to the U.S. Using a 10-year study of South African meerkats by Cambridge University as scientific cover, the producers not only name the research subjects ' Tosca, Mozart, Shakespeare and so on ' but go to great lengths to dramatize their interactions through story-based narration supplied by Sean Astin. Watching the three-DVD collection of episodes from the first season, two things become abundantly clear: Meerkats are the cutest goddamned animals in the world, and this show could be about meerkats, moths or marbles and it wouldn't make a difference. What draws the viewer in is the interanimal tension and familial drama generated solely by the narration, which is falsely ascribed onto these four-pound rodents who really just want to eat and make babies. As soon as one meerkat's 'characteristicsâ?� are defined, you immediately begin to see human-like behavior in that animal; Youssarian, for instance, is described as having social problems, so that twitchy look in his eyes is that of an anxious malcontent. No matter that every meerkat behaves like a crackhead that's just discovered crystal meth, Youssarian's the one that's gonna be trouble. And, of course, he is. It's easy to point out example after example of this, but the truth is, the whole show's conceit is anthropomorphism, and the simple fact is, meerkats aren't people.
The producers of Meerkat Manor aren't the first to try to spice up the mundanity of nature for a viewing audience. Disney did it most famously in 1958's White Wilderness, in which the filmmakers staged 'lemming suicideâ?� scenes using imported lemmings and forcing them to move in a way that jibed with the storyline of their documentary. White Wilderness probably didn't deserve its Academy Award for documentary filmmaking, but it is a fitting start to the four volumes of the two-DVD True-Life Adventures nature films recently released as part of the Walt Disney Legacy Collection. The 13 films in this series were, for many people, their first look at the natural world beyond their own backyards. (Wild Kingdom didn't debut until 1963.) From 1948's Seal Island to 1960's Jungle Cat, each of these gorgeous, color-filmed productions start with a peculiarly worded intro that asserts it to be an 'an authentic camera record of actual happenings. The story is nature's own, the actions of her creatures, entirely spontaneous.â?� Ahem. Though occasionally fact-fudging, at least the Adventures don't make you feel like you're watching a sitcom. As compared to Meerkat Manor, the only 'personalityâ?� in these True-Life Adventures is 'Mother Natureâ?� herself, while the animals themselves are looked upon with an amused curiosity that lies somewhere between condescension and amazement. It may not be a more accurate approach ' especially when they're throwing lemmings on a turntable or rustling up bears from hibernation ' but it's infinitely more magical. After all, who wants animals that are just like their next-door neighbors?